Researchers in Africa go wireless

Laurence Wolfe said NIAID connections from Bethesda, Md., to Mali were too slow, so the institute set up its own link.

(GCN Photo by Olivier Douliery)

Ten years ago, about 70 scientists at the Malaria Research and Training Center in Bamako, Mali, shared one telephone to communicate with the center's sponsor, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

Today, using a wireless communications network that includes a LAN, satellite dish and packet radios, the center in West Africa is connected with the rest of the world.

One of a kind

'What we have done is unique, and it's almost an entirely wireless solution,' said Laurence Wolfe, CIO and director at NIAID's Office of Technology Information Systems.

Because diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS are prevalent in Africa, the institute decided to open the center in Bamako to conduct research.

But communication with the center was slow. The phone often failed in bad weather, leaving postal mail as the only way researchers could send work to the institute.

'Researchers would go to villages, work for months and come back to the center to mail the findings to us,' Wolfe said. 'It would take six months or even a year for their findings to be incorporated in the science here.'

Frustration grew until the institute set up a computer with a dial-up Internet connection for the center's director in 1998. The aim was to give all 70 employees computers, Wolfe said.

'The problem was that Mali is so poor and has no infrastructure, so if you wanted to buy a computer cable, you would have to get on a plane and go to another country to buy it,' he said.

Instead, the institute built a wireless LAN, which it figured could 'do a cheaper and a better job,' Wolfe said.

By 1999, the wireless LAN supported 100 PCs.

The center uses Dell PowerEdge 1300 production servers and PowerEdge 2300 and 5166 models as backup servers.

Researchers have Dell OptiPlex GX1 desktop PCs; Dell Latitude CP, CPXJ and Inspiron 7500 notebook PCs; and Toughbook CF-25 notebooks from Panasonic Personal Computer Co. of Secaucus, N.J.

The network clients use Orinoco Silver wireless cards from Agere Systems Inc. of Allentown, Pa., and Dell TrueMobile 1150 wireless cards to connect. The local Internet service provider, however, suffered frequent outages and had trouble handling the center's increased data load.
'For Mali, 100 workstations' worth of traffic is more than half the country's entire traffic,' Wolfe said.

The institute changed from dial-up Internet access to a microwave communication system.
A microwave dish mounted on the roof communicated directly with the provider in Bamako, but the provider still could not support the data traffic, Wolfe said.

The agency then installed a satellite dish from Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md., at its Bethesda building, supplying a high-speed connection directly to the center in Mali.

By running its own satellite connection, the institute can control and reassign bandwidth allocation, Wolfe said.

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